Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Casting the Gaze, Slaying the Giant

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. We owe to our first journeys the discovery that place is nothing. --- Ralph Waldo Emerson from Self-Reliance

On the plane to India, I read the notes and letters, looked at the drawings and doodles my three children penned for me before I left home and which I was to read, one a day, for three weeks. Their absence so palpable in my heart and arms after even only a few hours, I devoured their messages knowing I could reread them from Delhi to Mumbai, and never tire of the repetition. From my middle boy, middle and not youngest by thirty minutes, I read the following: “Ma is going to India to play with her new ideas.”

And I thought I was – going to India to play with my new ideas. I thought my passage required no maps or guidebooks, my destination a state of mind. I thought mine would be a voyage into the unseen and un-seeable. I thought I would find god or a god, as clichéd as I knew and know it sounds. I thought I would transcend the physical, go beyond the material, defy Emerson’s assertion that travelling is a fool’s paradise.

I thought my new ideas would be intangible, inanimate, otherworldly. I thought that what I found would never slip into my pocket, fit in my carry-on; be stored on a flimsy micro chip; couldn’t be seen by the naked eye or felt with two hands, however gentle and unassuming the touch.

On the plane to India, I laughed at my three-year-old son’s raw understanding of something I barely understood myself. And while I did experience something like a moment of going beyond, once, at the ISKON temple in New Delhi – amid morning worshippers, bell chimers, silent prayer-makers, silly westerners like myself, group chanters, solo singers, drum-beaters – while I did connect with something – I know I did – the experience made me cry and the tears were thick and fell fast and only served to dampen the wings I had hoped to unfold.

There were no wings to unfold because there was no use for them. There was no place to go, no beyond to get to. There was only the place I was in, and it was throbbing with life and death and colors I had never imagined, so many shades of red, so many layers and textures of fabric and then black, the ever-presence of black burkas dotting the otherwise consistently colorful horizon. Place, unlike another of Emerson’s famous lines, is everything, especially for one who had planned for a journey of the mind.

My new ideas, I discovered, were my two eyes, which had been closed until then, closed to color and angle, shape and line, closed to the physical world. With a Kodak camera in my hand and all of India (or at least those miles I managed to cover), before me, I saw for the first time. I noticed; I observed – not what I thought or what I read, what I believed or what I rejected, but the material world around me; the very realness of human bodies and stray dogs; monuments to past Mogul glories and statues of deities with strange names and even stranger powers; street food I was not to eat and blood and urine I tried to step around; yellow and green rickshaws and children who should have been in school and women begging with nursing infants at their breasts. And I snapped.

I snapped and snapped. My meditation was not sitting in a yoga position or reciting a chant in a foreign tongue. My transcendence was not about going beyond this world, but into the very essence of everything around me. My enlightenment was staying in focus on faces unfamiliar but often friendly; landscapes sometimes uninviting; light inspiring; dirt upsetting; devotion pure; color joyful; signs unreadable; a subcontinent I had only three weeks to explore.

My new ideas were not what I had expected or even hoped them to be. I achieved no state of grace or higher consciousness. I escaped nothing, only found myself bonded with all I saw and snapped within the range of my 10x optical zoom, surprised by the realization that India was teaching me not how to escape this world but how to see it: what to notice and where to cast my gaze.

Emerson claimed that our giants go with us wherever we go, which makes travelling, in his estimation, an escape for fools. If my giant was my inability or unwillingness to really see the physical world around me, it came with me and I slew it.

......... scroll down to view some pictures from India, taken between 12/31/09 and 1/18/10